The Original Disney Institute Storyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I often mention that I was an animation instructor at the Disney Institute when it first opened in 1996 and taught every animation course, helped out with the annual Animation Events, and even filled in teaching on other program tracks where I had some expertise like Story Arts, Entertainment, and Communication Arts, as well as doing popular bi-monthly nighttime presentations in the Cinema on the history of classic Disney animation, in particular Mickey Mouse.
Recently, I was asked to share some memories of the early years of D.I. before it fell apart and became "the business behind the magic" and relocated to cubicles in Celebration.
It forced me to dig deeply through my closet to see what I could find that might spark some memories because the internet was no help at all. There are a few spotty, sometimes inaccurate, short descriptions or someone saying they enjoyed the classes they took but that is about it.
If you look closely at the 4:01 and 5:32 mark that is Jim Korkis 20 years ago with a full head of hair that is still dark and much thinner. I laugh now because at the time I thought I was really fat and old. Yikes!
Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa is a very nice Disney Vacation Club resort and it stands on the grounds of the former Disney Institute that has quite a previous history.
In 1972, the Buena Vista Land Company was created and developed some of the acreage beyond the Magic Kingdom and its resorts.
It announced in June 1973 the construction of Lake Buena Vista, a 1,200 acre residential community located adjacent to where Hotel Plaza Boulevard is today. This project featured an 18-hole golf course; a shopping village (finally opened in March 1975); and dwellings consisting of townhouses, single family homes, and cluster homes.
The original plans called for these residences to be leased and sold to businesses as corporate retreats and to individuals as second-home vacation properties.
By May 1974, 133 town homes and 60 treehouse villas were built, but the apartments and single family homes (although four different showcase models were built as examples) were never completed because there were concerns raised that if someone owned those dwellings they would have voting rights in the area. Disney could not allow that to happen. In addition, issues about proper taxation of the residents would have caused another mess.
So the idea of selling these dwellings was replaced by the concept of them being another form of lodging that could be rented like the rooms on other resorts on property.
The resort opened as "The Village Resort" in 1985. The name was changed to "The Disney Village Resort" in 1989. The nearby Lake Buena Vista Village shopping center changed its focus for just serving the resort toward all Walt Disney World visitors and was renamed "Walt Disney World Village" and eventually became part of what is the Marketplace section of Disney Springs.
When Michael Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, he wanted to develop the unused WDW property, especially building resort hotels that could accommodate large convention groups. This goal led to the building of the Swan and Dolphin resorts. But he also had other development plans.
Eisner and his family visited the Chautauqua Institution in 1985 in upstate New York that offered lectures, performances, recreation, and, most specifically, classes designed for adults to enhance their education during the summer months.
He thought that this could be a new form of year-round vacation experience that would extend guests' visits to Walt Disney World, as well as attract new guests with no interest in the theme parks.
Eisner thought that so-called similar enrichment vacations were becoming increasingly popular as aging Baby Boomers looked for ways to combine rest and relaxation with learning and exercise. Experts had claimed it was an emerging trend in travel like eco-travel that combined nature experiences with lessons on the environment.
Obviously, the word "Institute" in Disney Institute came from Chautaqua's "Institution," although other names for the place were considered and discarded. Like many of Eisner's ideas, it took awhile to put it all in motion.
At one point, Eisner wanted the Disney Institute to be in Aspen, Colo., so it was removed from the theme park experience to emphasize the educational aspects, but the cost estimates were way too high. He wanted to appeal to those rich folks who had discretionary income to re-connect with learning and who frequented that area and be a West Coast version of the East Coast Chautaqua.
He then was going to build it in Celebration to increase the prestige of that project, but that was still too pricey to start from scratch. In order to cut costs, it was decided to convert the already existing Lake Buena Vista villas and townhouses and just build the additional classroom facilities there.
The thought was that guests would physically stay at the resort for a minimum of three days and not need their cars because it would all be within easy walking distance of the cinema, performing arts center, health club and classrooms and would feel like a private community. Eisner announced the project at Carnegie Hall.
Program planning began as early as 1993 with actual construction beginning in 1995. The new structures were designed by Tom Beedy and given the look of a small, friendly New England town. Facilities at the 457-room lakeside resort were designed to accommodate about 900 people at its peak, a fairly modest number considering the other resorts and attendance at the theme parks.
The Buena Vista Golf Club building was greatly expanded to include not just the Check-in Center but a small upscale shop called Dabblers (which also featured exclusive pricey merchandise related to the classes guests could take) and was so named because guests were "dabbling" in unfamiliar disciplines. A full-service restaurant was also built called Seasons, because each of its four dining rooms was themed to one of the four seasons of the year.
The food was more upscale (and the chefs constantly changing menu offerings sometimes every day) but the atmosphere was fairly casual. Its location made it awkward for those not staying at D.I. to get there to eat or to park once they did.
Just outside the restaurant was a luxurious lounge with sofas and chairs, where people could gather and relax and with a grand piano that former Disney executive Judson Green used to come in and play at night.
Additionally, other new structures included a 38,000-square-foot two-story sports and fitness center with a full basketball court, indoor pool, and a full-service spa with seaweed facial or an "aroma therapy" massage; a 225-seat Performance Center that was acoustically perfect and featured side boxes in the audience; a 400-seat movie theater without a balcony; and a 1,150-seat uncovered amphitheater (which proved to be a huge mistake when it rained or the Orlando heat was too intense so could not be used).
Twenty-eight intimate program studio classrooms generally located in a two-story building in the center of the complex between the amphitheater and the Cinema were created although some classrooms like for Culinary and Design Arts were placed elsewhere.
Also a closed-circuit TV studio (DITV) and a radio station (WALT) both located in the same building as the culinary studio were built so that visiting media crews could broadcast from the studios in addition to offering classes for guests.
Some upgrades to the Lake Buena Vista living accommodations were made, but most of these were merely cosmetic, so there was no outlet to plug in and recharge any devices like a computer. The prices were going to be the same as the premium resorts on property but without the same amenities.
For instance, the Business Center was only open during the weekdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and then closed on the weekends, even though on the West Coast there was still three hours of working time during the week and business around the world continued on the weekends.
Officially the Disney Institute opened on February 9, 1996, but throughout the month of January, there were trial "soft opening" classes run for selected cast members and several dozen invited travel writers to try to work out any problems in the programs before opening.
"I think those people walked in as interested skeptics, and they left as firm supporters," said Richard Hutton, vice president of the Disney Institute. "We've always felt that this kind of vacation, which has never been done before, would build over time with word-of-mouth."
The motto was "You won't believe what you can do!" The logo featured the letter "T" in the word "Institute" becoming more and more empowered so that it literally flew into the air.
That character had a name, but none of the staff ever used it if they even knew. It was supposed to be the mascot and symbol of D.I. but guests never understood nor warmed to it either.
Animation manager Larry Lauria told me, "They paid big money for a design group to come up with that 'jumping T#39; in the name 'Institute'. The point was that he was to represent the guest and as the guest took more and more classes, he became more and more happy and empowered and knowledgeable and leapt from the mundane world high into the unlimited sky."
To increase attendance for the classes, it was not required that the guests physically stay in the D.I. lodgings, and since the cost was the same as a premium resort, many financially well-off guests simply stayed at Disney's Boardwalk Inn or Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and took transport to the Institute. Others stayed at less-expensive locations locally and drove in to take their classes or see nighttime performances.
One of the reasons for the demise of D.I. was that the ratio of "heads in beds" continued to drop drastically from the day the Institute opened so it was hard to cover the necessary overhead.
Generally each classroom held approximately 15 guests maximum. The classrooms were so small in order to provide a more intimate one-on-one personal experience that even when they were fully booked (or often overbooked with other chairs being dragged in to a class to increase attendance during the final years), it was not enough to cover the cost of the salaried instructors, the assistants, the crew that prepped and cleaned the classrooms, and the materials, let alone the cost of utilities.
As part of the opening day staff, I heard Eisner himself tell us that he didn't expect D.I. to really be profitable for about three years, and that he was committed to supporting any losses for this new endeavor in learning and entertainment during that time.
He said it would take time for people to understand what was happening since it was such a new concept and our job was to provide the best experience possible.
"The Disney Institute is stimulation for the mind. At Disney we have fun, escapism and, now, a campus for smart fun," he emphasized.
Within six months, classes like genealogy, spiritual inquiry, power baby sitting and money management, along with all the staff teaching them were suddenly cut. That started a domino effect and, by 1997, the entire Story Arts curriculum, including classes like Storytelling Journeys and As Walt Would Tell It were also gone. That last class focused on how Disney told stories in its animated feature films.
The lead instructor of As Walt Would Tell It was former Imagineer Charlie Kurts, who had been involved in the creation of the Splash Mountain attraction. Even though I was statused to the Animation department, I was cross-trained in teaching this class to cover when Charlie was sick or needed elsewhere. Of course, Story Arts and that class and all its staff and assistants were gone within that first year.
When D.I. opened in 1996, guests could choose from more than 80 programs in nine areas, including Entertainment Arts (which also encompassed animation), Sports and Fitness, Life Styles, Story Arts, Culinary Arts, Design Arts, Environment, Performing Arts and Youth Programs.
By 1997, in order to increase revenue, several popular Disney University programs were relocated to be part of the Disney Institute.
The very expensive Professional Development programs ("the magic behind the business") were now located at D.I., and some new programming was created that might make use of the existing D.I. instructors as "trained monkeys" (as some of the P.D. facilitators called them) to offer guests an experience in gourmet cooking, animation, gardening or video production, and then have the P.D. facilitators pontificate about business connections at various points in the class.
Disney Adult Discoveries, which handled the backstage guest tours like Backstage Magic, Hidden Treasures of World Showcase, Innovation in Action, and more, were also brought in and crammed into a small office in the instructors' trailer across the street from the resort.
The Disney University Wonders programs, designed for children 10-16 were renamed Y.E.S. (Youth Education Series) and offered classes for kids whose parents were taking regular classes. Later, these classes were expanded to be offered to visiting school classes from around the country.
By 1997, the core D.I. program tracks had been cut severely and this remained pretty much the curriculum for the next two years until the next round of major cuts.
Individual classes were each offered generally twice or three times a week (usually every other day) and were roughly two to three hours long.
There was a morning session offering and an afternoon session. There was a two hour break for lunch and in the evening there were events either in the Performance Center or the Cinema.
There weren't any tests, grades, or homework. The classes were designed as foolproof as possible so that every guest despite their abilities would be successful.
The 1997 program tracks and classes:
- Animation (Animation Sampler, Animated Beginnings, Voices of Disney, Classical Animation, Computer Animation, Clay Animation)
- Culinary Arts (Taste of the World, Wine, Wonders and Song, Healthy Cooking, Romantic Dinners, Culinary Technique, Studio Bakery, Celebrations)
- Home, Garden & Great Outdoors (Painting Illusions, Disney Architecture, Canoe Adventure, Traveling Gardener, Topiary Creations – one of THE most popular classes where people made a small Mickey Mouse topiary, Gifts from Your Garden, Container Gardener)
- Communication Arts & Entertainment (Edit Workshop, Outdoor Photography, TimeQuest, DNN Studio Production, Exploring Photojournalism, Computers: Internet, Digital Imaging, DNN Field Production, Candid Portrait Photography, DI Deejay for Youth, Computers: Desktop Publishing, DI Deejay)
- Camp Disney (Youth 10 years old and older) (Show Biz Magic, Swamp Stomp, The Funny Papers—Cartooning, Art Magic, Broadway Bound, Wildlife Adventure, Youth Rock Climbing, Discovery Island Explorers, Disney Island Kid Venture, Tiles, Temples and Treasure, Stealing the Show, Face Magic!, DI Art Lab, Disney's Orient Express, Art Surround)
- Sports & Fitness (Aerobics, Golf: The Game, Tennis: High Tech, Dance! Dance! Dance!, Golf: In Depth, Rise & Shine: Walk, Tennis: On the Attack, Tennis Aerobics, Rock Climbing: First Steps, Strength Training & Toning, Rock Climbing: Hang Time, Tennis: Stay in the Pt., Relaxation Techniques, Self-Defense, Water Exercise, Stretching, Tennis Clinic)
It is important to realize that the Disney Institute right from the beginning had the highest rated guest satisfaction surveys on all of WDW property and maintained that until major cuts started happening in 1998.
To encourage more attendance in the classes, a special $49 one-day offering was presented, but failed to generate guests wanting to pay full price once the offering expired. When regular pricing kicked in, the rates sometimes ranged from $582-$1,986 per person, depending on the season, the number of nights and the type of accommodations.
Disney Institute offered three-night, four-night and seven-night packages to "blend learning with leisure". All of the programs were designed for hands-on experience, up-close personal attention from a highly trained instructor with previous professional experience in the subject area and physical things for the guest to take away like the meal they made or the cel they painted. However, it was still a narrow market.
On opening day, Richard Hutton told all of us on the opening staff as a costumed Mickey waved for the photographers, "This is the last time that Mickey Mouse sets foot on this property."
He felt that connections with the iconic Disney characters minimized the seriousness of the institution. In addition, no accommodations were made to allow guests to visit the nearby theme parks as part of their package and it was actively discouraged because it would be taking money away from D.I., another reason why D.I. failed since the parks were temptingly just minutes away.
Lauria told me, "Hutton came from a public television background in Washington, D.C., and New York. His staff like Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss had the same background and attitude. They were definitely not immersed in the Disney culture nor wanted to be, and I think they were given marching orders to make the place prestigious and exclusive."
People could take classes taught by experts anywhere. They were coming to D.I. to learn "how does Disney do it" which is why classes like animation and making a Mickey Mouse topiary figure were so popular and lasted the longest when things were being cut but that made no impact on the management team running the Institute. Guests wanted to meet Mickey Mouse and go to the parks. They wanted to see programs in the Cinema about Disney animation not obscure and confusing independent films.
As fewer guests signed up for classes and stayed at the resort, classes were eliminated or consolidated and more staff was let go, with only two animation instructors left out of an initial group of ten during its final year.
The fact that Eisner was under siege at the time, and had no interest in protecting the place and those who wanted to undercut him saw D.I. as one of his pet projects, didn't help either in terms of generating needed support. Eventually, the guest enrichment programs disappeared entirely and Disney Institute closed in 2002.
The Disney Institute still exists today in name. Disney claimed that the Disney Institute was so successful that it could not be limited to just one physical location, but that the entire WDW was a living classroom.
The Professional Development staff was moved into cubicles at Celebration, but only offered their standard roster of expensive business classes to corporate clients or flew out to different cities throughout the country to present them at a premium price. They are known today as the Disney Institute.
The Disney Vacation Club (DVC), like the Disney Cruise Line, was not only a healthy business division within the company but was rapidly growing so it was decided to convert the physical D.I. property into the seventh membership resort.
Many things were gutted and razed. The amphitheater was changed into a large outdoor pool. New accommodations were built and a theme of horse racing at Saratoga Springs, New York was incorporated.
That DVC resort first opened on May 17, 2004.
When I went back for the opening ceremonies and walked through the area, I could still feel the ghosts of the original Disney Institute and was reminded of the saying that was popular back in its second year: "Everyone has some great ideas about how to make the Disney Institute successful, except the people running it."